We shall escape the absurdity of growing a
whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing
these parts separately under a suitable medium.
people, especially city folk, love eating meat, but are incredibly
squeamish about where it comes from. They want their bacon and
chops and steaks, but they don't want to be reminded of nasty things
like abattoirs and what goes on behind the butcher's counter. Serve them sausages by all means, but don't use this as a
springboard for a lively conversation about what's inside those
plump, sizzling skins. Meat comes from the supermarket in neat
plastic-wrapped packages and let's leave it at that.
Other people are less
sentimental about what their mixed grill would be doing if it wasn't
playing the part of breakfast, but they regard all this livestock
rearing and slaughtering as infuriatingly inefficient, dirty, and
not at all in keeping with a bright technocratic age. Wouldn't
it be better, they say in echo of Churchill, if we could just have
the drumstick and not have the chicken?
idea that you can grow cuts of meat in a laboratory without dealing
with all that animal poo probably got its start at the dawn of
Future Past in 1908 when the Nobel laureate Dr.
Alexi Carrel (1873-1944) took a piece of embryonic chicken heart
and bathed it in a nutrient broth. Carrel discovered that not
only could he keep the chicken heart tissue alive, but that it
doubled in size each day. Even more incredible, the tissue
never seemed to age or die. It just kept getting bigger and
bigger until it filled its container. At that point, Carrel
would remove a tiny piece of the heart tissue, transfer it to a new
container, and the whole process would start all over again. This went on for weeks, months, and then years. When Carrel
died in 1944 the chicken heart had been alive and growing for 36
years and had become something of a celebrity with the New York
newspapers wishing it a happy birthday every New Year's Day.
course, Dr. Carrel didn't just keep piling up container after
container of chicken heart tissue around the laboratory. People would have started talking. Every time he started a new
batch he discarded the old one. It's a good thing too,
because if he'd kept all that growing mass of tissue he'd have needed a container 800,000
miles across to hold it. And that's a lot of giblets.
It was probably Carrel's work
that gave Churchill the idea of growing pot roast sans cow and it did
have a certain bizarre appeal. Some writers even envisioned a
future device in the kitchen the size of a refrigerator where
cuts of meat would be grown to order in a process that gives a whole
new meaning to the phrase "Frankenstein food."
Others went back to the source
and saw a potential market for spanking-fresh chicken heart, as in Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's
classic science fiction novel the Space Merchants, wherein the
world's main source of meat is a monstrosity known as Chicken
little. Here is a description of the working day of Herrarra,
head slicer in charge of harvesting the meat of the gigantic organ,
The aristocrat of Dorm
Ten was Herrerra. After ten years with Chlorella he had
worked his way up-- topographically it was down-- to Master
Slicer. He worked in the great, cool vault underground,
where Chicken Little grew and was cropped by him and other
artisans. He swung a sort of two-handed sword that carved
off great slabs of tissue, leaving it to lesser packers and
trimmers and their faceless helpers to weigh it, shape it,
freeze it, cook it, flavor it, package it, and ship it off to
the area on quota for the day.
He had more than a
production job. He was a safety valve. Chicken
Little grew and grew, as she had been growing for decades. Since she had started as a lump of heart tissue, she didn't know
any better than to grow up against a foreign body and surround
it. She didn't know any better than to grow and fill her
concrete vault and keep growing, compressing her cells and
rupturing them. As long as she got nutrient, she
grew. Herrera saw to it that she grew round and plump,
that no tissue got old and tough before it was sliced, that one
side was not neglected for the other.
So what happened? Why
isn't there a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken Hearts restaurants
across the land? One reason was that after Carrel's death the chicken
heart died at the hands of a careless lab technician and in the
years since no one could duplicate the experiment. They could get heart tissue to grow, but none of the tissue demonstrated
the immortality of Carrel's specimen and died in short order. Certainly none of the later attempts grew large enough to break free
and menace the countryside, whatever the
radio had to say about such goings on.
But the idea of growing meat
in the laboratory hasn't gone away. In fact, it's had
something of a revival in recent years as scientists not only work on new ways to save
astronauts on long-distance space voyages from the horrors of
vegetarianism, but they are even trying to come up with ways to grow
meat so that it has the form and texture of the barnyard variety
instead of being a sort of meat slurry.
No one is entirely sure where
it will all end, but I feel that I can with confidence predict that
one day we will truly perfect the boneless chicken.